Lexington police ask city to revoke policy limiting off-duty use of cruisers

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comNovember 5, 2013 

LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

A program that limited the use of patrol cars for Lexington cops has not generated the $800,000 in savings it was expected to, police told the Urban County Council on Tuesday.

Speaking to the council's Public Safety Committee, police Chief Ronnie Bastin said the program, which allows officers to use their patrol cars to drive to and from home and off-duty jobs if they pay a fee of $50 a month, has saved an estimated $220,000 after a year. That savings comes from lower fuel, maintenance and insurance costs.

Before July 2012, Lexington police were allowed to drive the vehicles freely.

City officials countered that trying to calculate savings was difficult because there were so many variables, including gas prices. Bill O'Mara, the city's finance commissioner, said he used similar data to show the program had generated more than $530,000 in savings.

Mike Sweeney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4, pressed the council to revoke the change, saying it could be costing the city more than it realized.

Off-duty officers responded to an average of 5,000 calls a year when they were allowed to use their patrol calls freely, Sweeney said. Since the change, only 76 off-duty officers have responded to calls, Sweeney said.

Bastin said the change in the policy had not affected crimes rates, but "it's affected the visibility of officers on the street."

Many council members said they thought the policy should be reversed.

"I feel like we made a mistake," said Councilwoman Peggy Henson, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. Other council members agreed.

Councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti said the city might have saved $200,000, but that did not account for the 5,000 calls no longer being taken by off-duty officers.

The council has no say over the policy because it was adopted as part of the city's collective bargaining agreement with the police union. The four-year contract was projected to save $4.475 million compared to the previous contract. Much of that savings — 70 percent — was supposed to come from changes to the take-home vehicle program. The contract expires in 2016.

Ed Gardner, a lawyer with the city, told the council that only the administration could enter into agreements with the police, fire and corrections unions.

Jaime Emmons, chief of staff for Mayor Jim Gray, said the city thinks the program is saving money regardless of how the amount is calculated.

"This is a much bigger issue," Emmons said. Additionally, reverting to the previous policy would cost a lot of money. "We think we should honor the collective bargaining process," he said.

Police did not talk to the administration about reinstating the program until Tuesday's public meeting, Emmons said. He told the council the city was willing to at least talk to police about the issue.

In the past, Gardner said, the city and police and fire unions have made minor changes to collective bargaining agreements through a joint letter, but those changes typically were to contract language. Changing the cruiser policy would be considered a substantial change, Gardner said.

Beth Musgrave (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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